Five talking points in European football this weekend
Barcelona came unstuck in Spain despite another Lionel Messi goal, Bayern Munich’s patience finally ran out with coach Niko Kovac, while racism reared its ugly head once more in Italy where Mario Balotelli threatened to walk off after abuse from Verona fans.
AFP Sport looks at five of the main talking points from around Europe over the weekend:
Vulnerable Barca offer rivals hope
Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid were unable to capitalise on Barcelona’s surprise 3-1 defeat at Levante on Saturday but the Catalans’ collapse will offer their rivals encouragement in the title race.
Barca had won seven straight matches in all competitions coming into the game but three goals conceded in seven minutes in the second half suggest a tendency to unravel under pressure still persists.
Real were held to a frustrating goalless draw at home to Betis, with their own familiar problem returning of a lack of punch up front. Zinedine Zidane could do with Eden Hazard finding his best form as soon as possible.
Atletico Madrid also failed to take advantage as they drew away at Sevilla, where Diego Costa missed a late penalty. Atletico sit a point behind Real and Barca, having played one game more.
Kovac pays price for heavy defeat
Niko Kovac was axed by Bayern Munich in the wake of a 5-1 trouncing at Eintracht Frankfurt, with Erik ten Hag, Massimiliano Allegri and Jose Mourinho among the favourites to take over as coach.
Assistant Hansi Flick will take charge for Wednesday’s Champions League match at home to Olympiakos, as Bayern look to respond following the club’s heaviest Bundesliga defeat since 2009.
While Bayern can rely on Robert Lewandowski, who extended his own Bundesliga record by scoring for the 10th game running at the start of a season, Kovac’s successor must reunite a dressing room that grew increasingly at odds with the Croat.
Balotelli threatens walk-off over racist abuse
Mario Balotelli scored in Brescia’s 2-1 loss at Verona, but his performance was overshadowed by his fury at Verona’s notorious supporters, who have a long track record of far-right politics and open racism.
Despite denials of abuse from Verona, a video published on Twitter by a fan showed a number of supporters clearly directing monkey chants at Balotelli before the Italy international booted the ball at them in the stands.
The 29-year-old, who was born in Palermo to Ghanaian parents but was raised just outside Brescia, then had to be held back by players from both teams to stop him from leaving the field of play.
Verona coach Ivan Juric told Sky Sport that he heard “no racist chants, nothing at all” after a win that lifts his side to ninth, adding that “to say otherwise is a lie”.
Puel wasting no time at Saint-Etienne
Claude Puel has made an immediate impact at Saint-Etienne.
A month on from his appointment, the ex-Leicester City boss is still unbeaten after five games in charge.
The former European Cup finalists have taken 10 points from a possible 12 in the league under their new coach after a 1-0 win over Monaco — the club Puel represented as a player and with whom he won a league title as a coach in 2000 — on Sunday night.
William Saliba, the 18-year-old on loan from Arsenal, impressed marshalling a defence that pulled off a rare feat by stopping Monaco from scoring.
The principality club’s striker Wissam Ben Yedder had scored in six straight league appearances but was kept quiet for once. In the relegation zone when Puel arrived, Saint-Etienne are now eighth, just two points off second.
Djurgarden win Swedish title on final day
A dramatic final round of matches in Sweden saw Djurgarden emerge from a three-team race including Malmo and Hammarby to lift the title.
Djurgarden travelled to Norrkoping needing just a draw to secure the first championship since 2005 but found themselves trailing 2-0 inside 15 minutes.
With Malmo and Hammarby both easing to victory and the title slipping from their grasp, Djurgarden fought back in the second half as goals from Jesper Karlstrom and Sierra Leone’s Mohamed Buya Turay saw the Stockholm club scrape over the finish line by a solitary point.